Pawns

Is it not rather hypocritical for Turkish state media, notably TRT World (the international branch of Turkey’s public broadcaster) and Daily Sabah (the international voice of the ruling party), to lament the continued detention of Dr Tariq Ramadan — allegedly for Islamophobic reasons — given the number of imams, academics and journalists incarcerated in Turkey for alleged affiliation with Muhammed Fethullah Gülen? According to Human Rights Watch, there are currently 77,000 people held in pre-trial detention in Turkey, on charges relating to the 2016 coup attempt alone, where suspects can now be held for up to seven years.

Why is the spectre of Islamophobia not invoked in the case of these detentions —  given that Fethullah Gülen and his followers are Sunni Muslims, inspired by the writings of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi — other than because the ruling party is also predominantly Muslim? The answer from supporters of the state’s actions is that these men and women are held not because of their Muslim practice, but because of their suspected links to the 2016 coup plot, in which over 300 people were killed and over 2,100 injured. For those who remember the close alliance between the Gülen Movement and the ruling Justice and Development Party prior to anti-corruption investigations in 2013, the wide reach of the purge seems dubious, but to say so risks serious censure.

The Tariq Ramadan case then is a curious one. While no supporter of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration claims that the 77,000 people held in pre-trial detention are detained for their religious beliefs — at the behest of a state with ulterior motives — many are perfectly content to believe that this is precisely the reason the French judiciary has detained Dr Ramadan. For them, he was taken into and remains in pre-trial detention not because the allegations made against him are of a criminal nature, but purely because he is allegedly the most influential Muslim in Europe.

This, however, is quite odd. Just as in Turkey, French suspects indicted for serious crimes rarely await trial at liberty — especially if they are subject to four rape complaints, as Dr Ramadan is (three in France, one in Switzerland). The only way in which his treatment differs from other suspects is that, as a result of his celebrity status, he is held in a cell of his own, with personalised follow-up; most suspects held in pre-trial detention enjoy no such privileges. Naturally, in protesting his innocence, he is no different from the majority of prisoners on remand.

Whatever our view of French prejudices against minorities, we can surely assume that in dealing with an individual as rich, well-known and influential as Dr Ramadan, the panel of judges in the case made their decision to charge him based on solid presumptions of guilt. Note that Dr Ramadan was not simply detained as soon as an attention-seeking activist made allegations of sexual impropriety against him. Rather, he was charged with two counts of rape, including one of a vulnerable individual, following three months of preliminary investigation by three investigating judges. In their ruling denying the defence’s request to drop the charges at the end of July, the judges insisted that the serious and concordant elements which prompted the charges remain, and that the testimony of the second accuser proved on investigation to be exact.

To date the court has heard evidence from several women with whom the defendant appears to have had consensual relationships, not claiming rape, but corroborating the kinds of intimate behaviour the accusers have described in their testimonies. In their statement of reasons for choosing to detain the suspect, the judges included the risk of pressure on witnesses, which is allowed by France’s Code of Criminal Procedures. Given the public threats and insults aimed towards two of the women by supporters of the accused since the allegations were first made — not to mention the very active campaign publicising his innocence worldwide — we can be sure that the judges consider such pressure a very real risk. By detaining the suspect, the judges aim to ensure that any other witnesses, known only to the accused, are not prevented from coming forward, a strategy which seems to have been effective.

The numerous articles that have appeared in the Daily Sabah to date, and the slick videos produced by TRT World, tend to minimise the seriousness of the complaints that have been made against Dr Ramadan. It is absolutely right that the accusations should be robustly investigated and challenged, accepting that the accused is presumed innocent until found guilty, but we should nevertheless acknowledge the very serious nature of them. Dr Ramadan has been charged with two counts of rape in France and is an assisted witness in a third case, in which it is reported he acknowledged a long running consensual relationship; has had a rape allegation filed against him in Switzerland, and a complaint of sexual assault in the United States. Former students of his have also made informal complaints of his conduct as their teacher in Switzerland in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is our right, if we happen to be admirers of Dr Ramadan, to wonder if the numerous detailed allegations made against him are part of a wicked international plot to bring a good man down, but it is also our responsibility to look at the presented facts objectively. To do as the Turkish pro-government press and amateur Muslim media in the UK do, and present only a partial telling of these facts in pursuit of another agenda altogether is most unhelpful. That agenda seems to be cementing the narrative of a Europe actively working to undermine the efforts of Muslims to integrate and contribute, and of a bold Turkey standing up for the rights of oppressed Muslims everywhere. Unfortunately, acknowledging actual realities on the ground, either in Europe or in Turkey, do not serve that agenda well. They fly in the face of the simplistic binaries we are supposed to cling to.

Those campaigning for the release of Dr Ramandan will not be found campaigning for the rights of the tens of thousands of Muslims — amongst them religious leaders and academics — held in pre-trial detention in Turkey for their alleged role in the failed 2016 coup plot. You will not even find them campaigning for the rights of the other 19,000 people held in pre-trial detention in France, about 350 of whom are held on terrorism-related charges. The campaign is not really about the rights of the masses held in pre-trial detention in increasingly large numbers — whether justly or unjustly. It is purely about convincing the pawns on this grand chess board that the narrative that has been constructed so carefully by the strategists in our midst is undoubtedly true. It has been turned into an article of faith in modern times, which we are compelled to believe in or else be heretics despised.

My advice: don’t be a pawn.

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